Uncategorized

Reconnaissance

Soon after we
decided to take the plunge, we made our initial reconnaissance trip to Zurich.
We are relatively familiar with the city, having visited several times over the
past few years, but now we would be seeing it with different eyes. The
main goal of this trip was not to get a feel for the city we would be spending
the next few years exploring, but a more practical one: to look at prospective schools
for the children and, ideally, to make a decision. The children’s education was
our first priority and finding the right schools was (at least for me) a “make
or break” condition for moving. Finding a home would come next, since it would depend
to a large extent on where the school(s) would be located.

We decided to take
the two older kids with us on this day-trip. It might have been simpler logistically
to make the choice for them, but we wanted to involve them and also thought it would
help make the move more real. Notice I say “involve,” not “let them decide.” Even
though we made it clear to them from the beginning that we would be the ones
making the ultimate decision, it still proved to be a bit tricky. Eventually we
came to a good compromise.

We took off very
early on a Monday morning of a school-free week. The kids were very excited. It
was an adventure for them, but I think they also felt important to be part of this
trip and of the school search. We had made appointments to visit three
different bilingual schools that were highly recommended to us. Since we had decided
a few years ago that we wanted our children to pursue a bilingual (English-German)
education, we wanted to keep them in that system not only for reasons of
continuity, but also because we believe it is a solid education for them. So
even though there are plenty of good international/American (English-speaking) or
Swiss (German-speaking) schools in Zurich, we did not consider those.
The structure of
the Swiss school system – six years Primary School and six years High School (Gymnasium)
– is slightly different from that of the Austrian one – four years Primary/eight
years Gymnasium. For Alexia, the choice was clear – she goes to third grade
Primary. For Philip it is a bit more complicated, since he is currently in his
fifth year – already in Gymnasium in Austria. In Switzerland he has the choice
of either entering Primary School for one last year (sixth grade) or doing a
pre-Gymnasium preparatory class – at the bilingual Gymnasium.
The latter is, of course, much more rigorous than Primary School, but it has
the advantage that it would save him the tough Gymnasium entry exam one has to take
at the end of sixth grade. We tended to lean towards that option.
We toured all
three schools – two Primary and one Gymnasium – and got very good impressions
from all three. We also drove around a bit to get a feel for potential neighbourhoods.
Finally, we paid a visit to our good friends who live in Zurich and
Philip and Alexia were thrilled to see their kids. Needless to say, their presence
there is a major incentive for this move – for all of us.

On our journey
home, we talked about our impressions and preferences. I was surprised,
initially, to hear that the school both children liked the most was the
smallest of the three. They did not say it explicitly but we got the sense that
they liked the fact that it was cosy and “compact” enough for them to learn to get around
easily. It makes sense. New school, new environment – of course they will prefer
the one that’s more “manageable” for them.

The only problem
with that school is that it is very far from the areas where we would
look for a place to live. We much preferred the other Primary School we visited,
which was as good, but more conveniently located. For our eldest son, there was
also the issue of Primary School vs. Gymnasium on which he was very clear: he
did not want to go to Gymnasium yet. After having gone through the not-so-easy
Gymnasium transition once already and at a very young age, he realised that he was being
given the opportunity to take it a bit easier for a year – and he wanted to
take it. For once, he wanted to be in a school where he was not the youngest!
We could not argue with that. The move would be overwhelming enough and we did
not want to add to that by throwing him into a very challenging environment right
from the start. Alexia was thrilled to have her brother in the same school as
her, even for one year, and we thought this would also help make the transition
smoother for both of them. The convenience of having both older kids in one school
was less crucial in our decision, but a pleasant by-product.

In the end, we were
all happy with the compromise we reached. Philip gets to enjoy one hopefully less
intense year before entering a more demanding school; Alexia gets to go to the
same school as her brother; and we get to choose which Primary School that is.
They don’t get their first choice of school, but they do get a taste of the
value of negotiation J.

I would love to hear about your experiences choosing schools when moving abroad. Were your children involved in the process and/or the final decision?

Have a good week!

Uncategorized

Executive Decision Making

Early on in the process, almost right after our
decision to take the new job and move to Zurich, we flew to Switzerland for an initial “reconnaissance”
trip. I will write more about that in Monday’s post, but first I’d be interested to
hear from you about how you make (or would like to make) major decisions related to a move – not whether
to move or not, but all that comes next – in the context of the couple or
family.
How do you negotiate decisions with your partner? Is
there a “division of labor” – each one dealing with specific areas of
decision-making, such as housing, schools, etc. – or is everything approached jointly?
Or is it more of an ad-hoc process?
If you have moved with children, to what extent (and
in which areas) have you involved them in the decision-making process – if at
all? For example, did your kids have a say in the selection of the school they
would go to; or the choice of their new home?

Talk to me J

Finding Home

The theme for this week – and, most likely, for
several weeks to come – is housing. Finding the right home for a large family
is a complex optimization exercise in and of itself. Finding the right home for
a large family in Zurich is at least twice
as challenging.

Besides the fact that rents are obscenely high,
the demand for housing in Zurich by far exceeds supply,
particularly when it comes to larger properties. Finding appropriate housing is
often a lengthy process. In fact, we were told by several people familiar with the
Zurich real estate market that we are already late in starting our search – in
February – for a place that we will need in August! Assuming that we do find a place,
securing it is a whole separate
process, in many aspects similar to applying and interviewing for a
job.

With these non-negligible constraints as part of the
picture, we now have to focus on reconciling the different needs and priorities
the family as a whole – and each member separately – with respect to our new home. Finding
the home – and neighborhood – that best fit all those needs will not be an easy
task. Still, I try to keep a positive attitude.

We’ve already started the search process. We are
prepared to be patient and invest a lot of energy in that process. So what are the main
parameters of our housing search?

My children want a house with a garden. As simple as
that.

My husband would prefer a) a house with a garden and
b) something that’s not too far from the airport.

Our home should be in a safe neighborhood.

It has to have enough space – for our family; our guests;
my office.

It has to be at a reasonable distance from school and
kindergarten. It has to be relatively near places where the kids can engage in
other activities, such as sports, music, languages etc. If it does not have a
garden, it has to be near a park where the kids can play.

It should be well connected in terms of public
transport, since the children will, at some point, be going to school and other
activities by themselves.

Last, but not least, it has to be within our budget.

I forgot to mention: we have to find this ideal home
ideally within a few weeks, before my husband starts his new job and becomes de facto unavailable.

Where do I fit in this picture? Homes with gardens
are most likely to be located outside the city – in the suburbs. I am the ultimate city person and find the thought of living in a suburb
terrifying. I need civilization. I can’t feel isolated,
especially when I am moving to a new environment. I want to be able to go out
of my home and walk to a shop, a café, a restaurant, a park where I can take my
kids. I want my kids to be able to get around without needing to be driven all
the time. This is precisely the reason why we’ve always lived so centrally in
Vienna. The fact that I will be spending a significant amount of time alone
with the kids makes a central location even more critical.

That’s where the mommy guilt – again – comes in. Do I
have the right to deprive my kids of a garden in their childhood (even if it’s
for the sake of my mental sanity)? A welcoming home in which my children feel comfortable
could help them adjust to their new environment more easily. On the other
hand, given that my kids are growing up under what I’d call privileged circumstances, in a family where they are loved and taken care of, would the lack of a garden really be that traumatizing?

I read somewhere that
where you live determines how you live. Once we make a decision,
we’re stuck with it for a while.

When choosing a home, if you can’t satisfy all parties’ needs, how
do you decide whose needs take priority? And where do you end up living?

Sharing the News – Part 2

 

It was very important to us that the children, including
my step daughter who is currently away in College, were the first to know about
our decision to move. Accidents happen and we did not want to risk them hearing
it through the grapevine before they heard it from us. So telling them gave us the
“green light” to share the news with the rest of our family and friends.

This was an interesting exercise – emotionally. It was
hard for me to announce the move with the appropriate enthusiasm when I had
such mixed feelings about it. At the risk of sounding ungrateful (we could do
much worse than to move to a city that figures permanently among the top-3 on various
lists of the world’s most livable cities) and despite all the excitement of
embarking on a new adventure, I also feel awfully sad. That makes telling
people a bit awkward. It’s hard to explain that the enthusiasm and
anticipation I feel about our new life does not mean that I am not, at the same
time, utterly devastated to be leaving so many loved ones behind.

I think most of our friends feel the same way. They were
excited for us when they heard the news, but at the same time disappointed that
we will not be around anymore. Some were openly unhappy. Some tried – and are
still trying – to find arguments to keep us here: maybe my husband can commute from
Vienna; or maybe we wait another year before we move. A few were
considering moving to Zurich themselvesJ. I received many
messages and phone calls – all of them wonderfully touching – not making it any
easier.

The kids told their friends as well. My daughter and
her friends seemed to be sad but ok. When my eldest son told his friends, they
were very disappointed. Some were in denial and some threatened to leave town themselvesJ.
A very close friend who practically grew up together with my children was especially
mad at my husband: “Why on earth did he have to get a new job? Wasn’t the old
one good enough?!” (Perfect fodder for that moving mother’s guilt).

We try to keep an open line of communication with our
children – now even more than before. It’s important that we allow them to take the
time they need to process their feelings (which may include being mad at their parents),
but also that we are there to listen. Again, there is a delicate balance to be struck:
on the one hand I want them to know that I feel just as sad and upset as they do
– about leaving friends behind –, but on the other hand, I want be a source of
confidence and comfort for them. I want to reassure them that not only will
they not lose the friends they have, but they will also make many new ones. I need
to overcome my own hesitations and doubts and mixed feelings and appear
confident – for their sake. Not always an easy task.

How did your family and friends react when you announced
your impending move? How did you “manage” your own feelings about the move?
Have a productive week!

The joys of being an expat child

I realize that my last couple of posts may have been
a bit “dark” with respect to the impact of international moves on children –
both when I refer to my own concerns related to our upcoming move and to the scientific
literature available. This is by no means the whole story. Although the
experience of moving between countries and cultures is challenging and
demanding, particularly for children, it also can be positively life-changing and
incredibly rewarding.  This “other” side of
moving also deserves proper attention.

Interestingly, a large part of the literature focuses
a) on the different ways children suffer from international moves; b) on early
warning signs for parents; and c) on strategies that parents can use to help
their children cope with the practical and emotional challenges linked to moving.
There is, however, significant research on the positive side of moving and a
lot of it resonates with my experience and with the stories others have shared
with me. Below are some key benefits of being a “global nomad.”

First, moving around helps children develop “cross-cultural skills,” which include:

Ø  Adaptability and flexibility.
Children develop a high capacity to adapt to new situations and environments,
values, attitudes, behaviors. They become increasingly resilient over time, as
they master transition and change.

Ø  Strong observation skills.
In order to survive in new environments, they often need to observe carefully
and try to understand the reasons behind behavior and the unwritten cultural
and social rules.

Ø  Cultural awareness and international
outlook
. These come from learning that people view life
from different philosophical, cultural, political etc. perspectives, as well as
from experiencing that multidimensional
life first-hand. Children learn to understand and appreciate multiple cultures
and behaviors instead of becoming frustrated with the differences.

Ø  Tolerance.
This comes as a result of cultural awareness and the ability to get to know
people from diverse backgrounds – as friends, not just as acquaintances.

Other potential benefits of international moves
include:

Ø  Maturity
– Studies show that children who move around a lot tend to be more mature compared
to their peers. Being successful in making new friends, adjusting to a new
school, finding their way around the public transport system gives them a
certain degree of confidence and self-reliance. They know that, given enough
time, they will manage in a new situation, as they have in the past.

Ø  Linguistic proficiency
– The ability to think and express oneself in multiple languages not only makes
life and communication easier, but it also sharpens thinking and academic skills
in general. Not to mention the obvious career advantages in a global professional
environment.

Ø  Strong social skills
– These are a necessity for survival. Moving around, they must learn to forge
relationships with all kinds of people – fast.

Ø  An international community of
friends
– They learn to move among different worlds,
cultures, and interact comfortably with people of all ages and cultures.

Ø  Professional strengths,
which derive from some of these skills, for example:

–        Problem-solving skills, resourcefulness,
even in unstructured environments, and an ability to “think outside the box” – because
they’ve had to do it so often.

–        Cross-cultural skills, such as the ability
to detect complexity and subtle differences and to build bridges between
different groups of people, which are valuable in today’s international work
environment.

So there you go; enough arguments to sedate the moving parent’s guilt!

Looking forward to your comments.

P.S.
I recommend the following books if you want to read more on all that:The classic Third
Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds
by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van
Reken (Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009); and

Linda Brimm’s, Global
Cosmopolitans: The Creative Edge of Difference
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), which
provides an interesting perspective on how “global cosmopolitans” – as the
author calls them – possess unique strengths in today’s globalized business environment.